It turns out the answer actually is blowing in the wind. At least some of it.
Last week the Scottish government announced they were giving the go-ahead for up to 1,000 wind turbines to be set in the sea around Scotland. If they’re successful these massive, big-bladed beasts will generate around five times the total amount of electricity that Scotland needs.
The nation will become a net exporter of electricity. This is both very good, and in some ways, not so good news.
The good first. It means that in a generation a wholesale switch to clean renewables could be achieved, weaning off the reliance on fossil fuels for much of our energy needs. Clearly the extra generated around Scotland’s waters wouldn’t meet the rest of Britain’s demand. But it would help.
The move will also bring relief from dependence for Scots on overseas energy providers, which would mean that the feared huge energy cost leap we all face in the coming weeks will not be a threat in the future.
But a problem of ownership remains a thorny issue. Public ownership of utilities is a popular choice for Britons. Over 60 per cent said in 2020 that they thought utilities should be mostly run by government. Over 50 per cent of people were also in favour of energy being in public hands. (A BMG poll in 2019 found this hit the sweet spot for 52 per cent of those asked; that 52 per cent remains a stubborn polling constant.)
But it is very costly to invest in energy production. A cost of £24 billion is estimated to be needed to get all the infrastructure in place for the Scottish wind turbine plans. While this could be found by a nation like Norway, which has deep reserves thanks to the sovereign wealth accumulated through smart management of income from North Sea oil and gas, that isn’t the case on these islands. The hoovering up of the North Sea income by Westminster remains an angry live issue for many in Scotland. So, even if the new green energy boon means lots of money rolling in, it’ll (mostly) roll out to private hands. There will be some income. There was an initial £700 million raised as companies bid for the right to farm the wind. And there will be leases paid to have the turbines in place. As this is on the coast, it’ll go mostly to the Crown, with some paid to Scotland.
There is an argument that a jobs boost will follow and this income will go straight to local communities, many around the coast who really need it now. We’ll see. On balance, it’s much more of a positive than a negative that this is happening – for the environment and for control over our energy destinies.
But things need to go further. The cost of living hike fear is gripping so many people now. Households with the least look set to be disproportionately hammered. A generational failure in planning by successive governments and to properly get ready for the nation’s energy needs has led us here. Tinkering about with the BBC licence fee and pretending that this is aid for those on their uppers will not solve anything. And by playing politics with the gathering storm will mean nothing is really addressed and that the crisis will become cyclical.
Good, smart leadership looking to the future is what is needed. A brave plan to invest in energy. It won’t be cheap and it needs creative thinking. But there needs to be action out of Westminster that looks 20 years down the line. The Big Issue has been making this call for Future Generations thinking for some time.
This should be the lightbulb moment. Power to the people.
Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue. Read more of his columns here.
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